Authors: Liz Ruckdeschel
What if . . .
Your Past Came Back
to Haunt You
Sweetness comes in many forms, but it's usually best when mixed with spice.
hat's this?” Haley Miller gasped in an exaggerated tone, moving aside to let her next-door neighbors, the Highlands, into the house. Barbara Highland was carrying a foil-covered pie in each hand, and notes of cinnamon, toasted pecans and caramelized apples wafted through the air in her wake. “I can't believe my nose,” Haley added with mock outrage. “Joan Miller allowing processed sugar to darken her doorway? I never thought I'd see the day!”
“Very funny.” Joan smirked. “Don't worry, the sugar ban is lifted on holidays,” she assured Mrs. Highland.
Barbara was followed closely by her doting husband, Oliver, and their very smart and very crushable son, Reese. A junior like Haley, Reese was captain of the soccer and track teams and was on the short list to be next year's class president, prom king and valedictorian. Haley suddenly remembered she was still wearing her long auburn hair in a messy ponytail and quickly yanked out the elastic. She then turned and gave Reese a not-too-eager hello that, while making it clear he was on her turf now, was still casual and welcoming.
Today was Thanksgiving, after all. That morning, Mrs. Highland had called in a panic to say that their oven was on the fritz and their turkey still raw and cold. Naturally, the Millers had invited the Highlands to share in their bounty. Joan and Perry Miller then roasted not one but two free-range turkeys and prepared a spread of organic vegetables; Barbara Highland would provide pies and other desserts, which, luckily, she had prepared the night before, preâoven fiasco.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” Barbara said brightly. “It smells wonderful in here!”
Haley took a chilly cherry cobbler from Reese's hands and set it on the back of the stove to warm. Reese trailed her, looking over her shoulder somewhat suspiciously at the array of baked winter squash and pan-fried brussels sprouts. “Guess this means no candied yams with mini-marshmallows and canned whipped cream?” he asked.
Haley shook her head. “We do have gluten-free apple cake,” she offered. “And Mom's special pumpkin pudding. It's sweetened with cane juice instead of sugar and tastes . . . earthy.”
“Mmmm, earthy,” Reese replied, feigning enthusiasm.
“You should count yourself lucky,” Haley warned. “One year, Mom decided to âexperiment' by serving a braised tofu mold in the shape of a bird.”
“Youch.” Reese grimaced, then laughed.
Haley was glad they were clicking. She'd known Reese for over a year now, and had felt very close to him at times, but still wasn't totally convinced he shared certain sentiments. Even during their most revealing exchanges, Reese always held a part of himself back. Sometimes it seemed as if Haley had to get to know him all over again each time they were together. She loved the idea of spending Thanksgiving with the Highlands, but at the same time, all this cozy intimacy made her nervous. How would Reese behave tomorrow? Or the following Monday back at school?
“Well, I for one am anti-tofu on Thanksgiving,” Reese announced. “Could you imagine the pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a meal of seitan protein and green tea powder? Being vegan is
what this holiday is all about.”
Haley sensed her opening. “So tell me, who brought the marshmallows and aerosol whipped cream to the first Thanksgivingâwas it the pilgrims or the Indians?”
Reese smiled sheepishly as Haley handed him a stack of plates. “Come on, help me set the table,” she said, locking eyes with him. “You can tell me all about how the Wampanoag invented spray cheese.”
“You jest, Miller, but cans of that stuff appear in cave drawings not far from Plymouth Rock.”
Haley could hardly believe she had been dreading Thanksgiving this year. Just yesterday, her best-case scenario had been a moderately moist pile of white and dark meat laden with unlumpy gravy, followed by the usual fuss over her seven-year-old brother, Mitchell, who would undoubtedly be sucking up all the attention in the room or robotically disassembling whatever piece of electronics he could get his pudgy little fingers on. Haley's grandmother Gam Polly had decided to skip the festivities this year in favor of a trip to Barbados with her new boyfriend, Harvey Pickleman, so not even Gam would be there to lift Haley's spirits.
But suddenly, things were looking up. Like, way up. In fact, this was quite possibly the most fun Haley had ever had setting the table.
“Dinner's almost ready,” Joan called out as the Miller-Highland crew filed into the dining room. Mitchell buzzed down the stairs dressed in a smallish navy blazer and one of Perry's old wide flowered ties, picking up a serving spoon to use as his mike and proclaiming, “Welcome to a Very Miller Thanksgiving Feast. Tonight's guests are . . . Reese Highland! Mr. Highland! The lovely and talented Mrs. Highland! And your hosts, the Miller family, starring me, Mitchell Miller! Yay! Yay!” He ran around the table making his own crowd noises.
“Don't mind him. He's been on this talk-show-host trip lately,” Haley explained to a bemused Reese. “His role models tend to be your Mervs and Mike Douglases, the nineteen seventies guys, but once in a while he'll go off on a Letterman kick.”
“Thank you, Mitchell,” Barbara Highland said indulgently, “for the excellent introduction.”
Joan took her place at the table and grabbed a wooden serving spoon. “Mitchell, let's try not to pester our guests.” She was about to dive into the mashed potatoes with olive oil and rosemary when Mr. Highland interrupted.
“Shall we say a holiday grace?” Oliver asked, and Barbara and Reese bowed their heads in unison. Joan frowned, her spoon in midair. Haley worried for a moment that her mother might object to this suggestion. Prayer was not common in the Miller household, even on holidays. It wasn't that Haley's parents had ruled out the existence of a higher power. But they had both been undergrad science majors, and they still saw enough beauty in Darwin and nature to feel spiritually satisfied. The Millers also shared a mutual distrust of organized religion's collection plates, blind logic and shaming tactics. Nevertheless, Haley and Mitchell had been taught to respect their friends' and neighbors' and family members' beliefs and never to stand in the way of anyone's chosen traditions.
“Um, s-sure,” Perry stammered. “Oliver, why don't you do the honors.” Joan seemed okay with this solution.
“Thank you, Lord, for blessing us with this food. We thank you for always providing for our needs. And we thank Joan and Barbara for their hard work in preparing this meal for us today.” Joan cleared her throat sternly, and Haley knew exactly what her mother was thinking. In the Miller household, chores were shared. Perry had done just as much as Joan in cooking the Thanksgiving dinner and therefore deserved just as much credit. “We ask that you bless this food for our bodies and nourish our souls. And we thank you, Father, for each person sitting around this table today. Remind us each of all the many things you've made possible on this Thanksgiving. In God's name we pray, Amen.”
There was a brief moment of silence before Mitchell belted out the coda, “Through the lips, over the gums; look out, stomach, here it comes!”
Haley giggled while Perry rolled his eyes.
“Amen to that,” Reese said, tousling Mitchell's hair before piling a heaping portion of cranberry-and-organic-sausage stuffing on his plate. Haley breathed a sigh of relief. Her family had successfully navigated a potentially sticky situation without compromising their beliefs or denying the Highlands theirs. The moment had also offered a clearer glimpse into Reese's family life. Maybe this was a key to understanding some of Reese's more baffling quirks.
“Perry, how's that little tree movie of yours coming along?” Oliver Highland asked as Haley's father began to carve turkey number one. Haley shot her dad a wary glance, sensing that this time, for sure, fireworks were on the way. Perry Miller was a documentary filmmaker who taught at Columbia. He was generally mild-mannered and even-tempered, but he took his work very seriously. His most recent film was an exhaustive study of the life cycle of deciduous trees in North America, which had taken years to make. Haley didn't think he'd enjoy hearing it referred to as “that little tree movie,” especially by Mr. Highland, an investment banker. But a predinner beer had clearly had calming effects, because instead of blowing up, Haley's dad just nodded and said, “The tree movie's all done, thanks for asking. We're screening it at Columbia next week, as a matter of fact. Now all my free time is devoted to transferring the old Miller home movies to digital with a local post house. Actually, one of the assistants I'm working with goes to school with Haley and Reese. You two know a kid by the name of Garrett Noll?”
“The skater dude?” Reese asked. “He's a pretty cool guy.”
the Troll now has access to the entire library of Haley Miller embarrassing moments. No wonder he's been giving me those weird looks at school.
She made a mental note to have a talk with her dad about just what footage was leaving the house.
“As far as your documentary work goes, what do you think you'll take on next?” Mrs. Highland asked, seeming genuinely curious.
“Well, my next film's still in the planning stages,” Perry said. “I'm applying for funding now. But the topic is migration. Specifically, how global warming is affecting the migratory patterns of birds. Joan's work inspired the idea.” Perry smiled across the table at his wife.
“Fascinating,” Mr. Highland said, though Haley detected the slightest hint of a stifled yawn.
“I'll have to do some traveling for footage of the birds' habitats,” Perry said. “Probably after Christmas, down to the mid-Atlantic states, maybe over into West Virginia. It's about time we got the family back in the car, right, kids?”
Haley nearly choked on her brussels sprouts. Her parents had been making noises for the past couple weeks about a possible upcoming road trip. Haley had assumed they just meant a jaunt up to Gam Polly's farm. But New Jersey to Appalachia in the backseat with Mitchell? This was not a journey Haley could handle, and it certainly wasn't her idea of a fun way to spend Christmas break.
“Uh, I may have to sit this one out,” Haley said, racking her brain for a viable excuse. “Midterms are right around then. And you know how closely colleges look at junior-year grades.”
“You could stay with us, dear,” Mrs. Highland offered. “I'm sure Reese would appreciate having a study partner.”
Haley blushed and used her napkin to wipe her face so that Reese wouldn't notice. “Sure, whatever's easiest.”
“I didn't realize that birds were changing their migratory patterns, Perry,” Mrs. Highland added. “I hate to think of not seeing my hummingbirds or thrushes at our feeders in the summer.”
Joan shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Haley guessed it was because Mrs. Highland had just used the possessive in reference to wild creaturesâjust the sort of worldview that made Joan Miller crazy. “Migration is just the beginning,” Haley's mother warned. “We could lose fifteen percent of all plant species in the next twenty years if we don't stop the strip mining and deforestation. It's all interdependentâthe birds, insects, plants.” Haley was glad Joan left it at that. As an environmental lawyer and activist, Joan often seized moments like these to break out a slide show, charticles and graphs. She was a good match for Perry, but when they got into one of their famously heated arguments, you wouldn't have guessed it.
Mrs. Highland shook her head and clucked, “That's just awful.”
Haley watched as her mother tried and failed to stop herself from saying, “Well, it doesn't help when people like Eleanor Eton get swept into office.”
Reese and Haley knew Eleanor's son Spencer, who dated the junior-class princess, Coco De Clerq. Haley was no fan of Eleanor Eton's political views, but watching Spencer and Cocoâwell, mostly Cocoâlap up the attention surrounding the governor was entertaining, if a little disgusting at times. Judging by the
signs that had been posted in the Highlands' yard all fall, the Millers' neighbors fell on a different side of the party line.
“I don't know that Eleanor's such a bad choice,” Oliver Highland offered. “I liked some of her thoughts on education. She seems able and willing to take criticism and hear suggestions. And it will be nice to see a woman running the state.” Mr. Highland turned and looked fondly at his wife, and in that split second, Joan softened. She finished the rest of the meal politely talking gardening with Barbara.
“I saw Spencer at the mall yesterday, trying to shake off his mother's secret service goons,” Haley told Reese in a low voice. “It was pretty hilarious. Who knows what he was up to, but those guards wouldn't let him out of their sight.” Given Spencer's past antics, Haley guessed it was probably something illegalâperhaps a little gambling mixed in with some underage drinking. He hadn't been kicked out of three boarding schools for nothing.
“Yeah, I think those guards are there less to protect him than to protect Mrs. Eton's reputation,” Reese whispered back.
“What are you two muttering about over there?” Joan asked.
“They're gossiping about Spencer,” Mitchell reported from the seat to Haley's left. “Tell us more, Haley. Our viewers want to know all the dirt.” She rewarded him by stepping on his foot. “Ow. Don't hurt me, Haley.”
“Don't be such a bigmouth, then.” Haley stood up. “More stuffing, anyone?”
“I'd love another slice of turkey, dear,” Mr. Highland said. “Dark meat, please.”
“I'll have some more green beans,” Reese said, holding out his plate.
Haley refilled everyone's plates, then took her seat.